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DS Audio DS-W1 Optical Phono Cartridge Review, Part Two: The Sound

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Drums and Percussion

Drums often carry the rhythm and pace of a performance. I think that’s what I have always considered when judging the ability of a system to play drums. It’s easy to put together a system that robs all the weight and substance while you attempt to have lightening fast and tight bass. Often, you also end up finding out that you have sacrificed the bloom and warmth of the bass. At the same time, I have a low threshold for bass that is the least bit boomy, and that is a sound I hear from way too many systems. The optical cartridge gave me the kind of big and bold drums like I have never heard in my system without a hint of boom. The “RIAA” output did this without sacrificing PRaT in any way; I fact, the PRaT was exceptional. All in all, I was a very happy camper with how drums sounded.

In a way, cymbals are part of how drums sound. It would be a shame to get all the things about the drum kit sounding great, but then have tinny sounding cymbols or sandpaper sounding brushes. Cymbals can range in sound from a startling crash to a bright, brassy sound, or a silvery shimmer. All cymbals do not sound alike just like drums don’t; when your system plays cymbals right it will let you hear those differences with ease, and they will still sound, very natural. With the DS-W1, my system was able to let cymbals play this way with apparent ease. The drummer’s brushes on either the drums or the cymbals also sounded wonderfully natural.


Horns and Woodwinds

I listen to a whole lot of jazz so how my system plays these instruments is very important to me. (Anyone wondering what the Beatnik does not listen a whole lot to? -Pub.) I have about ten Pete Fountain records because he plays a great clarinet and my late Dad loved him. I also love to hear the great saxophone players of jazz. On the classical side, flutes and oboes really appeal to me. To enjoy woodwinds, a system has to have balance from the upper bass through the top-end. It is necessary to have more than balance, though. These instruments move small amounts of air, but this air is a very essential part of their sound. You can hear it when you listen to them live. With the DS-W1, my system’s reproduction of the harmonics of woodwinds was as good as I have heard, with an added amount of warmth and beauty that I was not accustomed to, but with which I was very pleased. The last bit of air didn’t stand out as much as it did with other super high-end cartridges. Instead, the air seemed to be more part of the holistic sound of the instrument. Maybe a better way to have that said is to say the air and the sound of the instrument were more a part of one another than I had heard before.

Horns are even more demanding than woodwinds. They often really push a system to its breaking point with both their wide frequency range and explosive dynamics. Most turntable systems struggle with horns; it is just difficult to get the explosive dynamics, the bite, and the body of a horn right without sounding edgy or just downright strident. Again, the great harmonics of the DS-W1 kept this in check so well that horns sounded like horns without ever becoming edgy.


Lets end with the most important instrument, the Human Voice

The most important instrument for my system to get right is the human voice. I want to hear as close to real human beings in the room with me as possible. The most important thing is voices should never sound like someone is inside a box. I want my system to have enough transparency to get the boxes out of the way and have enough articulation that voices can sound very lifelike. I look for a system that will allow me to hear the space and context of where the voice has been recorded. The first time I heard what I’m looking for was with the Teresonic Ingenium XR Silver speakers, the Wavac EC300B amp, the Shindo Giscours preamp and the Shindo 301 turntable system. I was shocked that voices could sound, as I described it, so scary real. It turned out there were a few, in fact very few, combinations of components that could do this in my room.

So, this was the final test for the DS-W1 to pass if it could please me personally and not just be a cartridge I could recommend as one of the best. After carrying out a few tweaks in the setup and weeks of listening, the optical cartridge passed with flying colors. It has such wonderful tonal colors and incredible space that it didn’t matter whether it was Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Satchmo, Ella or Joni, their voices sounded beautiful and right. If you’re looking for a cartridge that will super highlight the voice, then the DS-W1 isn’t it. I should mention that this description is when the DS-W1 was used in the AMG V12. When I used the optical cartridge in the AMG Giro, it highlighted the voices more. I preferred the sound of the voices more with the V12; they were more natural. One of the wonders of the cartridge is its ability to portray a very holistic sound. So if you’re looking for a sound where the voice sounds scary real, very natural and part of the whole performance, then the DS-W1 is as good as it gets. Of course, that is a generalization, very dependent on individual recording and the setup in which you use the cartridge.


Temporal Realism

I’m one of those reviewers who often talks about Pace, Rhythm, and Timing. I think one of the things that most sets apart live music from recorded music is temporal realism. Playing back music on an audio system seldom seems to get the timing and flow of music correct. It seems to me that tape and phono cartridges that are displacement-reading devices do this better than any phono cartridge that uses magnets. I’m guessing that the movement of the coils or the magnets simply blurs the timing to some small extent. I think moving iron cartridges do this less than moving magnets or moving coils, but none that I have heard can match the DS Audio or the Soundsmith Strain-gauge. I have no idea what messes up the temporal realism on digital playback, but it is one of the format’s real weaknesses, in my opinion. The ability to come so much closer to getting the timing and flow of a musical performance correct is part of what makes the DS-W1 such an enjoyable cartridge to listen to.


Dynamic, Micro-Dynamics and Scale

With the DS-W1, my system had jaw-dropping dynamics. It could go from very quiet to very, very loud almost instantaneously if the recording was that dynamic. It was also way too easy to turn the system up excessively loud if the LP started with a soft passage. The scale was also exceptional, being anywhere from huge to very small depending on what I was listening to. The sound, in general, was big and bold, but instruments never sounded bigger than life unless it was a recording where it always sounded that way. The cartridge also did a very good job of playing small or delicate works beautifully.

I felt the optical cartridge’s micro-dynamics were very good but different from the micro-dynamics of other phono cartridges. Micro-dynamics are important in two areas. First, they let us hear the quickness of the fingering of a string instrument or maybe the brush work of a drummer. This is essential to move the listener from the feeling one is listening to a speaker to feeling like you’re listening to music. They enable us to hear musical transients. Transients are the momentary variations in frequency; the ability of a system to play them for us is key to the aliveness of that system. A good moving coil mostly controls the added energy in the upper midrange and that is what many have come to equate with hearing transients in their system. The DS-W1 didn’t have this added energy in the upper midrange. Instead, it allowed me to hear the harmonics, as well as the transients. I find this combination of transients and harmonics to be more like live music. Though if you bring a lifetime of moving coil baggage with you instead of an open mind and ear, you may just miss out on how magical transients are when played with the DS-W1. This is a lot like my experience when listening to tapes. They have incredible dynamics but don’t have the upper midrange energy of a magnetic cartridge. I think the DS-W1 and the tape sound more like real music, but maybe not what we traditionally mean when we refer to the sound of vinyl. Don’t get me wrong, there are still many moving coil and moving iron cartridges with which I love to listen to music in my system.


Soundstage and Space

If you’ve been reading my reviews for long, you know that producing a huge holographic soundstage isn’t the most important thing to me. I think that kind of soundstaging is neat, but I don’t think it has much to do with the emotional enjoyment of a musical event, and sometimes it distracts from the performance. Still, it is important to most audiophiles so I feel I must share something about how a component I am reviewing performs in this area. This is an area where at first I thought the DS Audio was different from most cartridges in a way that might bother some people. The optical cartridge had incredible depth but if the performance was a small event, then the soundstage would not be as wide as most are used to. As I mentioned in the setup portion of the review, I discovered this had more to do with how I was using the Audio Reference Technology tuning cones than with the DS Audio cartridge itself. If I used no cones at all the soundstage was plenty wide. So, it became a matter of fine tuning everything from my system to the room for the DS cartridge. This should have come as no surprise since they had been carefully tuned for the strain gauge. I can’t imagine that the optical cartridge’s ability in producing a soundstage will be scrutinized by many, one way or the other.

While soundstaging isn’t that important to me, spatial presentation is. Even mono recordings, at least to good ones, contain lots of spatial information. Portraying this info to the listener is another one of those things that moves a system from a great audio system to one that can emotionally move you with much of the energy of a live musical event. In this area the DS-W1 was as good as any cartridge I have used, but again it portrayed space slightly differently. I think this is because it was so much quieter than any cartridge I have used. This means on studio recordings there didn’t seem to be as much of the sound of the venue as in live recordings. This kind of presentation is probably more correct, but it took a little getting used to. I believe this is because the DS-W1 doesn’t add much of its own sound to the recording. The one area in which  the spatial presentation was always exceptional was around and within individual instruments or the human voice. In this area, the DS was as good as I have heard from any cartridge.



To me, the DS Audio DS-W1 optical cartridge is about pure fidelity and great harmonics played with rich and beautiful tonal color. It has a natural and realistic warmth without giving up speed or detail. It had temporal realism that is closer to live music than I have heard before. Neither have I had any cartridge in my system with such powerful, deep bass that has both slam, bloom, and decay.

The harmonics and timbre produced by the DS-W1 are as good as any cartridge I have heard and better than most. It is slightly more forgiving and a little richer sounding cartridge than my Soundsmith Strain-gauge; it is a very emotionally satisfying and enjoyable cartridge to listen to. Isn’t that what we hope for when we go to a live musical event? Maybe the highest praise I can give it is that the longer I listened to it the more I couldn’t imagine living without it. I don’t know if it’s the best cartridge in the world. Not only I have I not heard them all, most of us can’t agree on what the best would sound like. What I can say is I haven’t heard a better phono cartridge with which I would rather listen to music. For me, that about sums it up!


Copy editor: Laurence A. Borden

5 Responses to DS Audio DS-W1 Optical Phono Cartridge Review, Part Two: The Sound

  1. Kevin says:

    Jack – great review. How does the DS-W1 sound on mono LPs?

  2. Jack Roberts says:

    Thanks Kevin, Like the strain gauge the DS also does and excellent job playing mono LPs. I’m not sure why displacement reading cartridge do such a good job on mono LPs but so far they seem to.


  3. John Chaney says:

    The only cartridges I have liked have been moving coil. All others sonund dead. Except, of course, for the Decca cartridges.

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